The Irwin Brothers

For National Brothers Day, some fragments on The Irwin Brothers.

The Irwin Brothers (George, Jacob, Fred, Bill and James) were an acrobatic and equestrian act from Buffalo that did balance stunts, trapeze and horizontal bars. Most if not all of the brothers were born in Oldham, England and emigrated to the States with their parents, who may also have been circus performers.

In early years the Irwins had performed with the Dan Rice, John Robinson, and Forepaugh shows. At the some point there was a split and a variety of subsequent acts splintered from the original team. Their own show, the Irwin Brothers Circus was formed in 1887.

Fred seems to have been the boss of this show. A few years later he branched off into burlesque, touring with a company called Irwin’s Burlesquers, most famous nowadays for having give early employment to W.C. Fields, and also Blossom Seeley and the Barrison Sisters. In 1897 he was one of the founders of what became the Columbia Burlesque Wheel.

James and William worked together as The Flying Irwins. Later James worked solo as a head balancer for Ringling and Great Wallace.

William married Sarah Agnes Wilson (known as Millie Irwin) and the pair were billed as “The American Tops” , “The Human Aerial Tops”, and also “The Flying Irwins”. Millie was known as as the Iron-Jaw Maiden, Iron-Jawed Lady, or Lady Samson. She was one of the first women to be hoisted by the mouth bit and twirled by a rope handler below. In their act, Bill would swing on the trapeze, while balancing on his head and juggling, as Millie suspended his trapeze from her mouth bit. In another number, walked a slack wire with one end suspended from his wife’s mouth bit.

Later, the Irwin Show was acquired by Ringling Bros. The American Tops continued to perform for Ringling into the 20th century. Their daughter Marie Katherine (Kitty Mae) Irwin became a contortionist with the show. At age 3 in 1897 she became the center of a famous incident when she was attacked by an equestrian bear — and then rescued by Jennie the Elephant! Later Kittie Mae married one of the Richards family of the Texas-based Richard Brothers Circus, and settled there. Her father is said to have performed in Texas too as late as the 1920s, and to have known and performed with both Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill in his time. And yet it appears that the Buffalo Irwin Brothers were no relation to “Cowboy Charlie” Irwin, founder of Irwin Brothers Cheyenne Frontier Days Wild West Show, who hailed from Missouri. More on him and that show anon. Also apparently unrelated is contemporary clown Bill Irwin, who also spent time with Ringling.

For more on the variety arts, including circus and burlesque, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,